Four Democratic primary candidates locked in a near tie in Iowa. Less than three weeks until the caucuses there. And the looming spectacle of a contentious impeachment trial against a president running for re-election.
Seems like the perfect conditions for a stormy debate.
Last night’s Democratic debate was the biggest stage these candidates will have before the caucuses, their last major shot to improve their standing in the race. The stakes couldn’t be higher: At least a few will emerge from Iowa lacking the momentum to continue their campaigns.
Yet, when presented with the opportunity to undermine their rivals, all six of the candidates onstage decided the risk of an aggressive attack simply wasn’t worth the possibility of a misfire — or angering Democratic voters eager for party unity in the face of President Trump.
It was the play-it-safe debate.
There was very little friction on the stage. Old fights, about health care and the war in Iraq, were softly relitigated. The top four candidates in the race — former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. — largely shied away from prolonged exchanges.
Mr. Buttigieg probably had the most to gain from drawing a sharper contrast. His autumn surge in the Hawkeye State has slumped more recently, leaving him in the top tier but not leading it. His campaign strategy is predicated on an Iowa victory. He didn’t take any chances.
“My focus was to make sure my message was coming through,” he told CNN in a post-debate interview, when asked why he didn’t go after his rivals more forcefully.
Instead, the most striking confrontation — the one that will be replayed over and over again on cable news — was between Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.
A day after Ms. Warren said that Mr. Sanders told her in 2018 that he did not think a woman could defeat Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders flatly denied making the comment, saying it was “incomprehensible that I would think that a woman couldn’t be president of the United States.”
Ms. Warren then touted her 2012 Senate win, arguing that she was the only person on the stage who had beaten an incumbent Republican at any time in the past 30 years.
“So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage,” she said. “Collectively, they have lost 10 elections.”
The exchange quickly devolved into a somewhat befuddling dispute over whether 1990 — when Mr. Sanders beat a Republican incumbent to win his House seat — was 30 years ago. (Then, after the debate, Ms. Warren appeared to reject shaking Mr. Sanders’s hand.)
In the debate exchange, Ms. Warren made clear that she was the female candidate closest to winning the nomination. But I’m not sure that selling point alone will convince many voters. Those who feel strongly about having a female president are most likely already aligned with her or Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
At the same time, Mr. Sanders’s response is unlikely to be particularly harmful to his prospects. Strong supporters of Hillary Clinton, many of whom have sour memories of his challenge to her in the 2016 primary, will be undoubtedly be infuriated by his invocation of her campaign to defend the ability of a woman to win the White House. Yet, it’s hard to see how he loses many voters as a result of his handling of the conflict.
Ms. Klobuchar, who is in fifth place in Iowa polls, was probably the most aggressive on the stage. It’s unclear if that will translate into more support. She’s had several strong debate performances; none resulted in much Klomentum despite much positive news media coverage.
It wasn’t a terrible debate. The questions delved deep into issues that Democrats care about; health care, child care, college tuition and foreign policy. Most Democratic voters want their candidates to present a united front against Mr. Trump, rather than tearing one another apart. They certainly got those optics in this debate.
But did it change the dynamics of the race? Probably not.
That’s good news for Mr. Biden, who probably benefits the most from the lack of incoming fire.
In the past, he’s been a shaky debater under a front-runner’s scrutiny. In this debate, he avoided any serious mistake and delivered a strong answer on why he’d be the most electable against Mr. Trump. He also spoke less than any other candidate on the stage except for Tom Steyer, the billionaire impeachment activist.
But Mr. Biden’s position in the race may benefit him more than any of the specifics from his performance.
He’s maintained his lead in national polls. He’s been creeping up in Iowa and New Hampshire after a fall slump. And soon he’ll largely have Iowa to himself, with two of his top rivals stuck in Washington six days a week for impeachment hearings.
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In an interview on Saturday, Mike Bloomberg complained to me that the debates weren’t “fair.” (Because he’s self-funding his campaign, he does not meet the Democratic National Committee’s individual donor requirement to get a place on the stage.)
So last night his team tried a different kind of approach to capture some of that debate night attention: bizarre tweets.
Here’s one of their strangest.